All-American linebacker Lane Napier returned to the Concordia Football program for a fifth season in large part because he wanted one more year to play football with some of his best friends. He also aspired to see to it that the Bulldogs got back to winning in a significant way in 2021. When the dust settled, the commitment was worth it. Napier and the defense wrapped up the campaign in dominant fashion while polishing off a seven-win season.
As icing on the cake, for the first time since the 1970 season, Concordia could celebrate a sweep of Nebraska rivals Doane, Hastings and Midland. These are the fruits of the labor the program has put in all while remaining confident in its direction despite experiencing ups and downs the previous few seasons.
Said fifth-year Head Coach Patrick Daberkow, “(Sweeping the state) is something we would like to hang our hats on for years to come. I think it’s a byproduct of some bigger goals that we have. When we set out figuring out what we wanted this program to look like and what winning looks like at Concordia University, we didn’t say that we want to go win the state championship. That’s not a thing. It’s a fun thing because we recruit so hard locally and we want to get all the Nebraska guys that fit our program. We want to at least make sure they come on our campus and get a feel for what we’re about before they make a decision. It’s big for recruiting and it’s a byproduct of bigger goals we have for the program.”
Daberkow has his sights set on eventually catching the likes of Morningside, Northwestern and Dordt at the top of the GPAC, but this was an important step forward after the Bulldogs went 4-4 in the 2020 ‘COVID’ season. While led by star linebackers in Napier and Caydren Cox, the defense was stifling. On the offensive side of the ball, freshman quarterback DJ McGarvie provided a jolt. The 7-3 final record marked the best for the program during Daberkow’s tenure and the best since posting the same mark in 2016. Singing The Doxology in a victorious postgame locker room never got old.
After defeats in three of the first four outings of 2020, Concordia won six games in a row to close out the season. The victories came over Dakota Wesleyan, Jamestown, Mount Marty, Midland, Doane and Hastings, in that order. Seemingly every week, someone new emerged as the starring performer. Six different Bulldogs earned a GPAC Player of the Week award, including McGarvie (Oct. 4), Cox (Oct. 11), Napier (Oct. 18), Korrell Koehlmoos (Oct. 18, Nov. 15), Peyton Mitchell (Oct. 25) and Jorge Ochoa (Nov. 8).
Statistically, McGarvie put together his best performance versus Dakota Wesleyan when he posted 309 total yards and four total touchdowns. He wound up with a season touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19-to-7. At times he benefited from the acrobatic grabs turned in by the likes of veteran pass catchers Cayden Beran, Koehlmoos and Garrett Schardt. A Davenport, Neb., native, Schardt led the team in receiving yards (504) while developing into one of the nation’s top tight ends.
Another year of progression by the offensive line, led by first team all-conference center Johnny Robinson III, also made a difference. Running back Jonah Weyand returned to health late in the season and eclipsed 100 yards in the wins over Doane and Hastings. Weyand led the team in rushing for the second year in a row. His leadership helped bring along the freshman McGarvie.
“DJ is such a competitor and I love to see that about him,” Daberkow said. “For a freshman to come in and have that many touchdown passes is a testament to his growth and how football can be a team sport. DJ would tell you that wasn’t him by himself. The offensive line has protected so much better than they have in years past. The progress they’ve made has been huge. Obviously DJ has a lot of poise. The quarterback room handled having a freshman start well and rallied around him. I think our upperclassmen quarterbacks showed great leadership.”
It won’t be the same without No. 23 roaming from sideline to sideline. In the win over Midland on Oct. 23, Napier moved past an eye-popping total of 500 career tackles. In 10 games in 2021, Napier racked up 134 tackles (GPAC leader in tackles per game) and was named the GPAC Defensive Player of the Year. He was the first Bulldog to garner that award since safety Darnell Woods did so in 2013. There just won’t be another like Napier, the embodiment of a Bulldog.
“It’s going to be tough to find another one like him,” Daberkow said. “To have that many tackles in a career is incredible. An interesting stat is that, yeah he played five years, but he had that many tackles in 45 games. It didn’t take him 50 games to do that. Lane is the epitome of toughness. He’s absolutely what we’re looking for in linebackers. He sets the standard so high for future linebackers in this program. Lane doesn’t say a whole lot. He lets his pads do the talking. I’m just super proud of him and lucky to be his coach.”
Napier had help on coordinator Corby Osten’s defense, which surrendered an average of just 252.3 yards per game during the six-game win streak. Cox blossomed while leading the team in tackles for loss (13) and sacks (8.5) and earning second team all-conference accolades. A native of Beloit, Kan., Cox was one of three Concordia defensive players to find the end zone this fall (the others were Shayne Campbell and Ochoa). Ochoa’s 23-yard interception return for a touchdown proved to be the game winner in the 20-13 triumph over Doane.
As part of senior day festivities on Nov. 6, the program recognized 29 seniors (and gave each the unique gift of a tool belt and hammer). Many will likely move on, but several could also decide to return and use their ‘COVID’ year of eligibility. Among the 29 senior day honorees were 2021 All-GPAC honorees in Cox, Mitchell, Napier, Ochoa, Schardt and Payton Stevens. A first team all-conference performer in 2020, Weyand also will have a decision to make as to whether to continue his college football career.
As Daberkow’s program heads into the offseason, there’s a feeling that momentum has begun to build. The aforementioned seniors played a major role in raising the morale and moving the arrow upward heading into 2022.
Said Daberkow of this offseason, “I think a theme will emerge as leaders emerge. Any time you graduate as many seniors as we will, you have a lot of guys stepping into new roles and sometimes into leadership roles. Sometimes that’s vocal leadership and sometimes that means it’s 5:59 a.m. and we’re going to start lifting and I’m going to bring a high amount of energy and effort to this lift. Games on Saturdays in September can be won or lost on Tuesday mornings in January. You have to earn the right to be respected by your teammates. There’s an eight-week grind from January into March. It’s kind of a fun time.”